Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Parable of the Sower . . . or the Soil? (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

It doesn’t take a seminary degree to observe that the parable itself in 13:1-9 puts the emphasis on the sower who sows the seed. It’s called the parable of the Sower in verse 18. But the interpretation that is given in verses 18-23 of the parable of the sower puts almost all the emphasis on the soil. If you give credibility to scholarly work on sacred texts as I do, it’s not difficult to understand what is going on.

The parable itself which is no doubt very close to the story as Jesus most likely told it was probably told as an encouragement to his disciples whom he sent out to preach the kingdom of God. He knew they would face opposition and he warned them that they would be like sheep among wolves. It would be easy to become discouraged in such a climate. The parable assures them that while, yes, there will be those who do not hear and receive their word, there will be some who will receive it. There will be some whose minds and hearts will be open and receptive to the message.

The interpretation of the parable goes in a different direction. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship it is likely that the interpretation originated very early on when this story was being passed down orally – by word of mouth. In the course of this oral transmission this interpretation developed among Jesus’ followers. If Jesus had given a particular interpretation to his parables he would have defeated the purpose for telling parables in the first place, namely, to tease the mind and heart into active engagement with spiritual truth. He would also limit the meaning and restrict the impact of the parable by giving it one, particular interpretation. So it’s not likely this interpretation originated with Jesus. When the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written some 5 or 6 or even 7 decades after Jesus, this interpretation had become such an integral part of the tradition that it was incorporated into the Gospel story as the interpretation of Jesus, even though it arose in the church. That’s the consensus of mainline scholarship which you may or may not accept.

I do accept that explanation and on that basis I want to make a point here that I think is very important and I will begin with a common experience. Have you ever read a scripture passage, maybe you even studied the passage or pondered it at some length, and it impacted you in a certain way? You discovered such and such meaning in the text. You believe God spoke to you in a certain way through that text. But then later, maybe a year later, maybe 5 or 10 years later, you came back to that text, and that same text impacted you in a very different way. And you believe that God spoke to you through that text in a very different way than God spoke to you initially through that text. I’m sure many of you have had that experience.

Why is that? It is because sacred texts are fluid and dynamic. The symbolism and meaning in those texts can change for us as the Spirit makes use of these texts and as we are open and ready to receive what God is trying to communicate to us through them. There are scriptures that I read and apply today in a completely different way than I did a decade ago. Why is that? A lot of it has to do with the journey we are on. Maybe we are at a different place today than we were then – a different place spiritually, psychologically, theologically, and socially. God can use a text to speak to us in many different ways at different times and in different contexts in our lives.

That is the nature of God’s word. God’s word is not limited to scripture and it’s not a static thing. The word of God is God speaking. If you read a text of scripture and your mind and heart is not open to hear and receive what God may want to say to you through that text, then that scripture is not God’s word to you. The word of God is God actively wooing, drawing, enticing, revealing, and engaging us in a variety of ways.

Certainly, scripture is one of the key ways, one of the more important ways through which God engages us. This is why we give such great attention to scripture in our worship and in our study and mission groups. Sacred scripture is really important to us. And of course, we believe Jesus to be the living word par excellent. We believe that in the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, in out sacred scriptures we have been given a definitive revelation of what God is like and what God’s will is for humanity. This is why the lectionary puts such emphasis on the Gospels. Every Sunday there is a reading from the Gospels. The lectionary is structured around the life of Jesus. So scripture is very important to us. But the word of God is not limited to scripture. The word of God is God speaking and God can do that in any number of ways.

The word of God is a dynamic reality and we may never know the full impact of a word of God on a person.  Sometimes we write off people as having closed hearts to the word, but we never know really. The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching in Atlanta and was called back to Oklahoma for a funeral.  The man who died had been a good friend in the little church that Craddock served there.  It had been years since they had talked, but they were good friends. 

The voice on the phone said, “Ray wanted you to come and have his funeral, if you could?” Fred said, “I’ll come.” So he went, and after the funeral and the meal, it was just the family gathered around.  Kathryn was there.  She was the oldest daughter.  When Fred served that church, she was thirteen years old.  Fred says, “I remembered her when I left. She was the worst thirteen year old I had ever seen—noisy, in and out, pushing, shoving, breaking things, never stayed in the room, never paid attention.  When I left there, I could have said, ‘If there is one person that doesn’t know a thing I’ve said in the time I was here, it would be Kathryn.’”

Kathryn was now an executive with the Telephone Company.  She and her dad were real close.  Fred said to Kathryn, “I’m sorry, it’s such a tough time.”  She said, “It is tough.  When Mother called and said Dad had died of a heart attack, I was just scrambling for something.  Then I remembered a sermon you preached on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.”  And she went on to tell Dr. Craddock something he had said in the sermon which apparently made a difference in her life. It gave her something to hold on to when she needed it most.

We just never know do we? And this is encouraging. Some seed land in good soil. And even when the soil may not be so good, some seed may stay put long enough to eventually do some good. This is a real encouragement to those in the business I’m in. We don’t know what might get through, and so we keep sharing the message, we keep teaching and preaching and writing and sharing because we never know. 

But this also should encourage you, because you are also sowing seed. We all are. One of the primary ways God speaks to people is through people. We are the body of Christ. We are called to scatter God’s love and grace. And we are not to discriminate. It is not for us to say who is good soil or bad soil. It’s not for us to say who is deserving or undeserving. There is a sense in which none of us are deserving and there is a sense in which we are all deserving. We are all God’s children. We all bear the image of God, no matter how marred that image may be. The Spirit resides in all of us whether we know it or not. Who knows when a closed heart will become an open heart? Our job is not to judge. Our job is to scatter the seed.

Whenever you offer hospitality and welcome you are scattering seed. Whenever you stand with and for the most vulnerable you are sowing seed. Whenever you do some work of mercy or share some word of kindness, or whenever you give of your resources and time to others, you are scattering and sowing the word of God. God is revealing God’s self through you. God is speaking through you. We are all sowers of seed.

And if we are not sowing good seed, there is a good possibility we are sowing bad seed. Jesus also told a parable about a good tree bearing good fruit and a bad tree bearing bad fruit. Are we sowing love or hate? Are we sowing inclusion or exclusion? Are we sowing affirmation or condemnation? Are we sowing courage or fear? Are we sowing humility or pride? We are all sowing seed.

We are also different types of soil at various times in our lives. The interpretation of the parable by Matthew should cause us to ask, “What kind of soil am I? So on the one hand we ask, “What kind of seed am I sowing?” And then on the other hand we must ask, “Am I the kind of soil in which the seed can flourish?” We can be different kinds of soil from one hour to the next.

Please don’t read this parable from the perspective of your own ego. If you do, then you will think of yourself as good soil and you will place others in the different types of soil. The people who believe like you do or think like you do or practice their faith the way you practice your faith you will designate good soil. If you do that, you might be anything except good soil. If we assign people and groups to various types of soil we will have then set ourselves up as judges and gatekeepers and our hearts will be just as closed as the religious gatekeepers in the day of Jesus.

We don’t need to be labelling or categorizing anyone. We need to look at our own hearts. Because the fact is, on any given day or moment our minds and hearts may be like any of these different types of soil. Let’s be honest. Some days we are like the hardened footpath. The seed doesn’t have a chance. There are days I know I am hard soil. And there are days I know I am preaching to hard soil.

One Sunday the preacher announced his sermon title as “Ignorance and Apathy.” A church member leaned over and asked his wife: What does he mean by ignorance and apathy. She replied: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Unfortunately, there are some days where that’s where we seem to be. And the seed doesn’t have a chance.

There are other days when our minds and hearts are like the soil that is shallow and full of bedrock. There are days when disappointment or disillusionment set in, when our physical or emotional suffering becomes a barrier of bedrock preventing the good seed from sinking down into the depths of our hearts. Suffering may make us better or bitter. Some days it makes us bitter.

There are other days when our souls are full of weeds. These weeds are identified in the interpretation as the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. We know about these weeds don’t we? The lure of wealth may not be the wealth itself, it may be the power and position and place that comes with wealth. These cares could be anything – not necessarily bad things, but preoccupations and concerns that distract and keep us from doing what is really important like loving others. These cares and aspirations choke out the life of the good seed.

For many of us it doesn’t take much to distract us and turn us away from the wisdom and truth that could make a huge difference in our lives. C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters describes a man who goes into the library to read and think. His mind is suddenly opened to thoughts of God and what that might mean in his life if he took God seriously. But then, his attention is drawn to the sounds on the street, to the newsboy calling out the latest news, and to the fact that he is hungry. And that’s all it takes to get his mind off of God. He, then, becomes consumed once again by the cares of the world.

Keeping the weeds out requires fairly constant attention. I have a goldfish pond in my backyard and I have some plants and rocks as the setting for it, and I have a heck of a time keeping the weeds out. It requires a little bit of attention every other day. If I let it go several days which I often do, weeds seem to sprout up everywhere. The same is true of our souls. This is why some spiritual writers insist on the practice of contemplative prayer or centering prayer, because it’s a way we can quiet our hearts and open them to the Spirit. In order for the divine life that is within to flourish it needs some space to set down roots and grow. That falls on us. We must make some space and invite God to speak and work in our lives. If we are focused on getting more stuff, or making a name for ourselves, or if we are constantly worried or anxious, there is no space in our lives for the life of Christ to live and thrive.

The Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ.” How often can we say that? Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, and all these other things will fall in place.” Jesus asks us to move from being torn and divided about many things to being committed to the essential thing – God’s good and loving will for humanity and the creation. 

We can’t make the seed grow, but we can clear away some of the stuff that prevents the seed from growing. So much of the spiritual life is about subtraction, it’s about letting go – letting go of our many worries and fears, letting go of our infatuation with our own importance, letting go of our need to be in control and on and on it goes. We must let go of those things that prevent the life and love of God from growing in our lives.

So these are the two critical questions we face today. First: What kind of seed am I sowing? We are all sowing seed. Am I sowing good seed or bad seed? And second: What kind of soil represents my heart and mind most of the time? Is my mind and heart closed? Is it distracted or preoccupied? Or am I open, receptive, and ready for what God wants to show me and teach me?

Gracious God, may our hearts be open to receive your word to us. Help us to make space for your word to take root and grow. And help us to realize too, that just as you speak to us through others you speak to others through us. Empower us to sow seeds of peace and hope and love everyday. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The way of wisdom (Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30)

Bass fisherman talk about active fish, neutral fish, and inactive fish. There are periods of time, actually fairly long periods of time where big bass are dormant. They suspend in open water or they hover deep in cover, but either way, they are uncatchable. If you could precisely locate where one is and dangle a bait right in front of its nose, it will not take the bait. When a big bass is inactive, it is an uncatchable fish.

In our text today, we are introduced to some uncatchable fish. You may remember that Jesus employed a fishing analogy when he called some fishermen to be his disciples. He said, “Follow my way and I will teach you how to catch people in the net of God’s kingdom.” I suppose if you are fishing by means of a net it’s a bit different, but even then, I can imagine fish residing in cover that the net cannot penetrate. While disciples feel a sense of mission to share the wisdom of the way of Jesus with others, we know that there are folks who simply will not bite. And there are, I’m sure, all kinds of reasons for that, but all these reasons are reflective of the state of one’s heart. If one’s heart is closed, it is closed, and it cannot be forced or pried open.

Our Gospel text begins with a depiction of closed hearts. John and Jesus both come preaching the kingdom of God. John’s understanding of certain aspects of the kingdom of God no doubt differed from Jesus. John roared and thundered. He emphasized God’s judgment and called his hearers to repentance. He dressed like Elijah, had a strange diet of locusts and wild honey, and drew people out into the desert to hear him. He baptized those who welcomed his message. On the other hand, Jesus baptized no one. He traveled all around Palestine. He dressed like a rabbi and taught the way of wisdom. Though he, too, functioned as a prophet and called people to repentance he told stories and utilized short, witty, sometime shocking proverbs and sayings to make his point. He was known not for his thunderous speech, but for his compassion, for eating and drinking with “sinners” – those judged as unworthy by the religious establishment.

Now, I suppose it would be easy to say that Jesus’ approach was the right one and John’s not so much, but I’m not so sure that is the way to look at it. I think there are times we need both. Sometimes we may need to hear a hard word, a stern word, a challenging word; sometimes we may need to be hit over the head with the truth. Someone may need to shake us awake. Then, there are other times we need a more a sensitive, caring, gentle, and compassionate invitation. Both John and Jesus called their hearers to change, though they went about it in different ways. But some folks, like so many of the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day, are calloused to either approach. They are not going to bite. Their hearts are closed.

Today’s text echoes in several ways two strands of ancient Hebrew teaching and tradition. One is the tradition dealing with Moses and the law. And the other is the tradition dealing with wisdom. In several Jewish sources, including Proverbs in our Old Testament, divine wisdom is personified as a woman who assumes divine characteristics and attributes. This is what some teachers are referencing when they speak of Sophia or Lady Wisdom. Sophia is the Greek term for wisdom, which is feminine. The writer of Proverbs, for example, introduces the wisdom of God this way: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice . . . How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . . Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.” That’s from Proverbs 1. Divine wisdom is personified as a woman. She invites her listeners to give heed to what she has to say. And when you consider the patriarchal culture of ancient Jewish society this is pretty radical stuff.

I can understand why wisdom is personified as female. I was in my study on Wednesday working on this sermon, and Matt, our custodian, came in and said, “You have a net in your car?” I said, “No, why?” He said we have a bird in the fellowship hall.” I said, “Ok, I will run home and get one.”  I came back with two nets. I have one I use in my kayak to land those big bass I rarely catch, and I have a long net I use in my goldfish pond at home. When I walked in with the nets I noticed the doors to the fellowship hall were open and Karen and Betty were standing there. I said, “Did the bird fly out?” They said, “Yea, we opened the windows.” Duh! Now, can you just Imagine me and Matt chasing a bird around the fellowship hall with fishing nets. Probably would have made a great “You tube” video though. I thought of this passage where Lady Wisdom says, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?”

What this passage is suggesting is that Jesus drew from both the law and the wisdom traditions in Judaism. He summarized the law as the law of love and he embodied and taught the way of wisdom. But not all were ready to receive and emulate his love and his wisdom. In fact, Jesus says that the way of wisdom is hidden from the wise and the intelligent, but revealed to infants.     

Now what does that mean? Wisdom hidden from the wise and the intelligent? It means that enlightenment and wisdom are only given to those who have the humility to receive these gifts. No one who overly cares about position or place or power, no one who wants to control others, can receive these gifts. The religious elites, the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day were closed to the wisdom of God. Why? Because they lacked the humility and readiness needed. They were not about to welcome truth from John or Jesus. They had the truth. They had the answers. They were the gatekeepers. They said who was “in” and who was “out.” They were the gatekeeper of a worthiness system. They labeled and categorized people according to who, in their judgment, was worthy and unworthy. And you know sisters and brothers, there’s a lot of religion, particularly a lot of Christianity just like that today.

Without humility, without recognition that we are all infants in need of being nurtured and taught the way of wisdom, there can be no growth. Wisdom cannot be received by the proud, by the know-it-alls, by those who think they are better or smarter than others. This is just how grace works sisters and brothers. The grace of enlightenment, the grace of wisdom, the grace of being able to understand and receive and live the way of Jesus is given to us in response to our awareness of how desperately we need such grace, how desperately we need the wisdom of God.  

Christians talk a lot about grace, but I’m not sure we all get it. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about becoming irate one afternoon when she was at Yale Divinity School in the 1970’s. The books she wanted she couldn’t find in the library, even though there was no record at the front desk that they had been checked out. When she asked the librarian what was going on, he told her that the Divinity school had the highest theft rate of any graduate school in the university. Barbara said, “How embarrassing. Why do you suppose that is?” “Grace,” he said, with a rueful look on his face. “You guys figure all has been forgiven ahead of time, so you go ahead and take what you want.”

Terrible isn’t it? That sense of entitlement is not grace at all. It’s interesting how many Christian folks get this all screwed up. I am going to venture into the health care discussion for a moment or two. I am not going to name any names so don’t worry too much, but there is a point here that needs to be made about grace. As you well know Congress is trying to push through a bill to repeal and replace the ACA that will, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, give a number of tax breaks to the wealthy while it will over the next decade push millions (not thousands, millions) of low income persons and families off of health insurance. Health insurance will be so costly that low income folks won’t be able to afford to get it or what they can afford will be so bad, it would be like not having any coverage at all. Here’s the point I want to make about grace. Some (not all of course, but some) who support this bill argue that the people who will be pushed off of health insurance don’t deserve it any way. They argue that they don’t deserve it because they haven’t worked as hard as those who deserve to have the tax breaks. They argue that somehow those who get the tax breaks deserve them, while those who are struggling just to make it from day to day are, for whatever reason, not entitled to receive government subsidies to help them get decent health coverage for themselves and their families. The people who make this argument, many of them Christians, may talk about grace in their churches, but they have no idea, no clue what grace really is. By the way, in my judgment for what it’s worth is that adequate health care should be no different than public education. It should be the right of everyone who lives in this country.

The worthiness system that Jesus challenged and contended with in his day in his own religion is really no different than the worthiness systems we experience today in Christianity, and I’m sure other religious traditions in their own way contend with this  too. Life transforming faith, authentic faith, faith that heals the broken, that forgives and restores sinners, and that liberates and frees the oppressed is never about being worthy, it’s never about rewards and punishments.  Worthiness systems close and harden the heart to true grace. They turn faith into a system of comparisons and competition. They divide and label and offer condemnation rather than salvation. Worthiness systems spread fear and insecurity and they produce anxiety.

But the way of wisdom, the way of grace, the way of true enlightenment and transformation nurtures the very opposite. The way of Jesus is rooted, not in a system of meritocracy, not in a system of rewards and punishments, but rather it is rooted in the unconditional love and graciousness of God who abolishes all exceptionalisms and elitisms. The way of Jesus breaks down barriers of division and brings us all to the same table to share the same meal as sisters and brothers in one family.

And yet the wisdom of God while freely given does not come without some costs, which is why Jesus also advised his would-be followers to count the costs. The way and wisdom of Jesus is called a “yoke,” but it is also called an “easy” yoke. Now, it’s not “easy” in the sense of what this wisdom asks of us. Jesus said, “If the world/the system persecuted me, it will persecute you (his followers).” Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to walk in the way of wisdom, then you must deny yourself (your ego self, your little self), and take up your cross and follow me.” "I’m headed toward a cross, says Jesus, and you must be willing to follow me there.” How is that easy? That is not easy. And yet, here’s the paradox (almost all spiritual truth is paradoxical) when one truly encounters real grace and comes to see just how gracious God is and how connected we all are and how beautiful life is, then following the way of wisdom is an “easy” decision that brings “rest” to our weary souls.

If you are unsure whether or not you are operating out of a worthiness system or whether you are living out of the experience of divine grace you may want to engage in a little self-inventory. Ask yourself these questions: Does my faith cause me to feel better, more special, more chosen, more blessed than others? Do I think others are excluded because they don’t believe or live like I do? Do I feel some fear and anxiety in practicing my faith? If you say yes to any of these, then there is a possibility you may be caught up in a worthiness system.

But if you are walking in the way of wisdom, if you are living out of a sense of union with God and connection to everyone else, if you are living and experiencing grace, then you will know something of the deep “rest” of God. You may be going through hardship, you may be encountering suffering and living under great stress, you may face opposition and rejection, but paradoxically and inexplicably you will also know at a deeper level peace and gratitude and feelings of generosity and thankfulness – what was called in a recent film I watched “collateral beauty.” For such is the burden that is light and the yoke that is easy that comes with the way of Jesus.  

So sisters and brothers, whether it’s Lady Wisdom of the ancient Hebrews beckoning all to listen, or whether it’s John the Baptizer thundering repentance out in the desert, or Jesus of Nazareth healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and throwing dinner parties for sinners, the way of wisdom invites us to receive grace and be part of something much larger than ourselves. The invitation may even come from some crazy preacher on a Sunday morning in July, 2017. If we would just open our hearts to the wisdom of God in humility and generosity, in trust and compassion, then we would know at a deeper level, below the surface of the waves that beat upon our lives every day, the peace and gratitude and joy of Jesus, then we would find true “rest” for our souls.

O God, as we now come to this table in thanksgiving for grace given and incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Christ, open our hearts in humility that we might receive your wisdom and experience our connection to you, each other and all creation. Amen. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rethinking Sin (a sermon from Romans 6:1-11)

Renowned New Testament scholar W. D. Davies, a number of years ago wrote a book intended not for the scholar, but for the lay person interested in the New Testament.  In his section on Paul he has a chapter entitled “The Ancient Enemy.” He begins with a story about President Coolidge, who had just returned from a service of worship one Sunday morning. When he was asked what the minister preached on he replied with one word: “Sin.” The minister preached on sin. When he was further pressed, “What did he say about it?” He responded, “He was against it.”

Over a half century ago, theologian Paul Tillich said that the great words of our Christian tradition cannot be replaced. He argued that there are no adequate substitutes for them – for words like “sin.” Though I’m sure he would have argued that we have to explore multiple meanings of these words.

One of the beautiful things about religious language is that it is symbolical language. It is metaphorical language and can touch us on many levels. The beauty and power of religious language is that words can take on new meanings in new contexts. I am not suggesting that we throw out the old meanings, but we need fresh and more nuanced understandings. This is particularly true when we talk about the language of sin.

Pastor and author John Ortburg tells the story about the time he and his wife sold their Volkswagen Beetle to purchase a really nice piece of furniture.  It was a pink sofa, but for the money spent to buy it, it was called a mauve sofa. The man at the sofa store gave them careful instructions on how to care for it. Ortburg said they had very small children in those days and the Number One rule in the house from that day forward was: “Don’t sit on the mauve sofa! Don’t play near the mauve sofa!  Don’t eat around the mauve sofa! Don’t touch the mauve sofa! Don’t breathe on the mauve sofa! Don’t even think about the mauve sofa! On every other chair in the house, you may freely sit, but on the mauve sofa you may not sit, for on the day you sit thereon, you shall surely die!”

Then one day - the “Fall.” There appeared on the mauve sofa a red stain, a red jelly stain. His wife called the sofa factory, and unfortunately it would be a permanent blot on the mauve sofa. So she assembled their three children in front of the mauve sofa to look at the stain:  Laura 4, Mallory 2 and a half, and Johnny, who was less than a year. She said, “Children, do you see that? That’s a stain.  That’s a red stain. That’s a red jelly stain. And the man at the sofa store say’s it’s not coming out, not for all eternity. Do you know how long eternity is, children? Eternity is how long we’re all going to sit here until one of you tells me which one of you put the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa.”

For a long time they all just sat there until finally Mallory cracked. She said, “Laura did it.” Laura said, “No, I didn’t.” Then it was dead silence. Ortburg says, “I knew none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because they had never seen their mom so mad and because they knew if they did they would spend all eternity in the ‘Time Out Chair.’” And then he says, “And I knew that none of them would confess to putting the stain on the sofa, because in fact, I was the one who put the stain on the sofa, and I wasn’t sayin’ nuthin! Not a word!” 

The truth about us, of course, is that we have all stained the sofa. As Paul says earlier in this letter, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” One time when Barry Larkin, who played for the Reds, hit a game winning home run off of Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson, Patterson described the pitch he gave Larkin as a cross between a screwball and a change-up. He called it a screw-up. Maybe a more contemporary way of saying what Paul meant when he said, “we have all sinned” is that we have all screwed up and struck out. We have all stained the sofa.

All of us get this. We all know about individual sin. We do enough of it don’t we? We have screwed up and struck out many times. We have failed to be loving persons we know we should be. We have hurt others with our words and actions. We have failed to live up to God’s expectations, our own ideals and expectations, and the expectations of others. In any number of ways our attitudes and actions come way short of living out God’s loving will for our lives. We know this. It’s a given.

What we may not know or realize with equal honesty and awareness is our participation in corporate or collective or systemic sin. We all participate in systems of injustice and sin, often without being aware.

For all Paul’s talk about sin, Paul doesn’t give a whole lot of attention to specific attitudes or behaviors that we would identify as “sins.” Rather, when Paul refers to sin, which he most often speaks about in the singular rather than plural (sin not sins) he often has in mind a kind of enslaving power; a force that entraps human beings and which almost always diminishes our lives in some way. It’s a kind of anti-love force that works in our lives individually and in society collectively to tear us apart – to divide us from one another and to divide our own hearts. This is what Paul is talking about when he uses phrases like “the old self” and “the body of sin”- he is speaking theologically, psychologically, and socially. Individually we can think of sin as destructive addictions, as false attachments to power or pleasure or pride, and as negative patterns and habits of thinking and living. Corporately or communally, we are also complicit in systems of sin – systems of injustice and evil. And these systems which we are all part of have enormous shaping and forming power in our lives. They are like force fields that limit our movement.

Think of how we have all bought into a system that keeps us wanting more, wanting what is bigger and better even though we don’t need it. We don’t even give it much thought because it’s what runs our economy. We are all affected by our consumeristic culture. How many big priced glide baits do I need to catch that big bass? How many expensive drivers do you need to hit that little white ball down the fair way? And no matter how much you pay for the drive you still can’t hit it straight, in the same way that I can’t catch that big bass. How much square footage does a family need? You see my point. We hardly even think about these things because they are such a common part of society. When the bass at Cedar Creek started hitting on plastic brush hogs I went out and bought 10 packages of brush hogs in all colors. Did I need 10 packages of brush hogs? Of course not. Now, I will agree though, some of you do need lots and lots of golf balls, but I won’t go there. Such is the power of the system as it appeals to our lesser desires. Think of how the system shapes our wants and desires when it comes to the clothes we wear, our houses and furnishings, our yards, our automobiles, and on and on it goes doesn’t it? So both individually and systemically we get caught in the power of sin.

In this section in Paul’s letter to the Romans, sin is personified as an oppressive regime. It can rule or lord it over a person. It is likened to a master or a tyrannical ruler. You know there is a lot of powerful spiritual symbolism in the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins is the Hobbit who finds the Ring of Power. Everything turns on the Ring of Power. Bilbo is unaware of the power the ring exerts upon him, much the way we are unaware of how deeply we are entrapped to our ego and the patterns of our culture. And through the years, the captivating power the ring has on him grows.

So as he makes plans to leave the shire for good, he intends on giving the ring to his nephew, Frodo, as part of the inheritance he leaves to him. But as the time approaches for him to depart the shire he has second thoughts. He cannot seem to let go of the ring. The ring has this strange hold on him.

Gandolf, the wizard, has observed for some time the strange power of the ring and he encourages Bilbo to give it up. In one scene, as Gandolf prods Bilbo to leave the ring behind, Bilbo’s demeanor changes. Greedy and grasping he snarls, “It’s mine! My own! My precious.” Gandolf does not back down and Bilbo is compelled by Gandolf to relinquish it, to let it go.   

When they learn the secret of the ring and Frodo and his companions begin the journey to Mordor, to destroy the ring in the fire at the Mountain of Doom, the ring begins to exercise its overriding power on Frodo.  And at the end of the journey, Frodo arrives at the mountain with the sole purpose of dropping the ring into the pit of fire, but then he cannot do it. He can’t let it go. It’s why he undertook this perilous journey. In the end it takes providence; it takes an intervention from Gollum, the pitiful creature who possessed the ring for many years. The power of the ring had destroyed his former self. Ever since he lost the wrong he has been consumed with getting it back. So Gollum tries to take the ring from Frodo. Gollum is able to wrest the ring from Frodo, but then loses his footing and falls into the fire with the ring, thus completing the mission that Frodo had consented to do.

The ring of power is a poignant symbol of both individual and systemic sin. It exposes the power that our addictions and false attachments have over us, as well as the power of the system to control us. So how do we break free? Where do we find freedom? How are we liberated?

Paradoxically, it is by dying that we enter into life. And by the way, this is not unique to the Christian faith. All the great religious traditions teach some form of dying to self, dying to the ego, and letting go. Paul connects this to Christian baptism which he interprets symbolically as our dying with Christ to sin’s power in order to live in the newness of life symbolized by God raising Christ from the dead. The point that I want to make here, which I think is really important, is that dying to sin, letting go of the old self or the false self, breaking free from what Paul calls this “body of sin” is never a once-for-all experience. It is a process and a journey.

There are some experiences that are decisive and may turn us around or change our direction and set us on a different journey or mission, such as Paul’ encounter with Christ when he was a persecutor of Christ followers. But, dying to our negative attitudes and behaviors, letting go of old habits and learning new ones that are more loving and life-giving is a process. When Paul says in verse 11 of our text, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” he is talking about a process that must be repeated daily, just as Jesus says, in Luke’s version of the saying, “Take up your cross daily.” It’s a day by day process. To say this theologically, salvation and sanctification are just different ways of talking about the same reality. Salvation is continual. It is on-going. It is a process of becoming. It is a daily journey of dying and being reborn.

Some spiritual teachers speak of this process as a process of shedding the false baggage  we have acquired and discovering our true selves created in God’s image. In a Hasidic tale, a rabbi named Zusya dies and stands before the judgment seat of God. As he waits for God to appear, he grows anxious imagining what God may ask him. What if God asks him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you David or why weren’t you Elijah?” But when God appears God asks the rabbi, “Why weren’t you Zusya? Why did you not discover your true self? Why did you not become who you are?

Maybe redemption and transformation is about allowing the Spirit who indwells us the freedom to shape us into the likeness of the image already stamped upon us. I like the story about the country boy who had a great talent for carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He said, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

For Christians the art of soulmaking, the process of becoming who we really are and were created to be means whittling away the parts that don’t resemble Jesus. It means whittling away the parts not in sync with the loving, compassionate healer and liberator of the Gospels known as Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as Lord.

It’s not easy though. Negative patterns of thinking, what Richard Rohr calls “stinking thinking” and self-serving patterns of behavior are hard to overcome. Especially when the system we live in and the culture we are part of encourages bad thinking and behavior. This is why we have to be patient with one another, and patient with ourselves. It’s a journey. Growth is sometimes very slow. We don’t let go of egocentric attitudes and actions overnight. But as Paul says, “Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.” Sometimes the process is painful. There are setbacks. There are times it’s really tough, but God will see us through. As Paul says in another letter, “The one who began this good work in us will bring it to completion.”

Our good God, sometimes our growth, our liberation from sin, from the old self, from systems of injustice, is like a snail’s pace. We confess our own entanglement in unjust systems, and we acknowledge how often we are ego driven rather than love driven. Help us to be aware of our sin. Help us to be aware of our ensnarement by the system. And give us the grace to ask your help and the patience to be persistent, to keep getting up every time we fall, so that we might whittle away at all the negativity and selfishness in our lives, and become more of the humble, loving, serving, compassionate persons you have called us to be. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

To fear or not to fear (Matthew 10:16-18; 24-39)

I love the story that is told about young Teddy Rooselvet. Some if not many of you have heard me tell this before. (By the way, the reason I will tell stories 2, 3, and 4 times is because good stories need to be remembered and retold in different contexts.) As a little boy he had this fear about going to church. When his mother inquired he told her that he was afraid of something called the “zeal.” He said he heard the minister read about it from the Bible.  He imagined “the zeal” was something like a wild animal or dragon hiding in wait in the hallways or under the pews at church. 

Using a concordance his mother looked up the word zeal and when she read to him John 2:17 in the AV he told her that was what he heard. The text is about Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals. The text reads, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” He was afraid the zeal that lived in God’s house was going to eat him up. 

Some people are conscious of their fears while others are not. For some folks fear operates at the subconscious level. It’s real and present, but lurks underneath the surface so one may not even be aware of its presence. Fear is certainly a factor in how we relate to God.

There are number of passages in the Hebrew Bible, our – the Christian’s – Old Testament, where fear of God seems to be commended such as: “The fear of God is the beginning of the wisdom.” In my seminary days I did a word study of “fear” and discovered that the way fear was used in the OT is quite a bit different than the way we talk about fear today. I concluded from that study that the Hebrews often employed the term “fear” to denote respect and reverence. To fear God was to reverence God; to stand in awe of God. Sometimes today’s Gospel reading is used to encourage fear of God. Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Destroy here, by the way, does not mean to torture, but to terminate, to do away with, to kill. The threat is a threat of termination, not torture. Most people who promote and preach fear as a positive response to God stop right here. They don’t go on to read the rest of the text.

In the passage that follows Jesus paints the picture of a God whom no one should fear. This God, the God of Jesus, takes notice of a little sparrow that falls to the ground and the God of Jesus knows the number of hairs on our head, which is just a colloquial way of saying that God knows us intimately and deeply cares for us. Jesus then says, “Don’t be afraid. You are much more valuable than sparrows.” The argument he is making is this: If there is anyone to fear it would be God, for God is able to terminate our very existence. God holds the key to life. God’s Spirit indwells us and gives us life, and God could withdraw God’s Spirit at any time, in which case, soul and body would become lifeless. But (and here’s the good news) there is no need to be afraid of God, because God cares intimately and deeply for each one of us.

The context for this teaching is a setting of persecution by the hostile powers who are intent on punishing and even killing disciples of Christ who work for justice and truth. Just as they rejected Jesus, we too can expect to be rejected by the powers that be. And while the powers that be can kill us, we need not fear them, because the God who is judge of all will be with us and God is for us (as Paul so beautifully says in Romans 8). If there is anyone to fear it would be God, but God is our Abba, our loving, compassionate motherly father and fatherly mother. So, “Don’t be afraid.”

This is such an important teaching. Why is it so important? I will tell you. You can obey a God you are afraid of, but you will never love that God deeply with all your heart and soul and strength. You may say that you do and even convince yourself you do, but you can’t. You can’t really love deeply anyone you are afraid of. So if you are going to love God, you need a God you don’t have to be afraid of.

Now, even though the Hebrews spoke of the fear of God in a more positive sense than people tend to do today – as reverence and respect – still it had its drawbacks. It still conveyed some notion of distance. From the Hebrew point of view, one didn’t get too close to God. There were exceptions to this tradition, but this was the dominant one. There was a popular saying in the Hebrew tradition that one could not see God and live. And anyone who has ever read the Bible knows that there is a good deal of divine violence and divinely sanctioned violence in the Bible. So getting too close to God was not recommended.

This is why the portrait we have of Jesus in the Gospels is so remarkable. Jesus speaks of a God who cares about a little sparrow that falls to the ground and knows and cares for us each one individually. In the ancient Hebrew tradition the group was often more important than the individual. Jesus emphasized both the community and the individual within the community, and said that God even loves those who are God’s enemies, raining blessings on all people, the just and the unjust alike. In Jesus we meet a totally non-violent God. This is the central message of the cross and why the cross is so important to us. On the cross Jesus is executed by the powers that be. He bears the wrath and hate and fury of the powers that be, without returning it upon his haters and killers. This is how Jesus bears the sin of the world. The powers that crucified Jesus represent all of us and our entanglement in the unjust system. He died on account of sinners, because sinners crucified him. And he died to rescue us from our sin, by showing us how to stop the violence and the hate. We stop it the way Jesus did – by absorbing it, by bearing it, by making forgiveness and reconciliation possible thus stopping the cycle of violence and death. 

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center. Roy Honeycutt, who for many years was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the days when that school was a highly esteemed theological institution, told this story.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honor to end the conflict.  

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon, punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through the opening. It could have been cut off, but instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture of peacemaking came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

Chancing one’s arm is always risky. It could get one killed. But it’s the way of Jesus, the way of peace. It’s the way of the cross and Jesus tells us to take up our cross. By losing our life we find life. By sacrificing our grudges and resentments and anger, and by offering forgiveness, we discover life. By the way, for the first several decades practically all Christ followers were pacifists. This is how they understood Jesus. To take up the cross was a call to non-violence. Now, I have to admit I am not a true pacifist even though I preach against violence. I believe in and preach non-violence, but if it comes down to kill or be killed, I will kill. But clearly, the first followers of Jesus believed Jesus revealed to them and us a non-violent God.

Now, sometimes a verse in our text today is referenced by those who try to argue that Jesus supported violence in some situations. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” But then if you read what immediately follows about kingdom loyalty dividing families, you realize that the use of the word “sword” here is clearly metaphorical. Jesus often employed highly figurative, and sometimes shocking language to make his point. Like when he said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” We don’t read that literally do we? It’s a shocking metaphor that makes a point. And here Jesus is using the word “sword” in the figurative sense of that which severs and divides. He doesn’t mean it literally. In fact, when the temple police came to arrest Jesus, in all the Gospel accounts one of the disciples draws his sword, and Jesus immediately rebukes him and tells him to put it up. Why? Because violence is not the way of Jesus.

When Jesus tells Pilot in John’s Gospel that his kingdom is not of this world, he does not mean that his kingdom is somewhere else in some other world, some heavenly place. After all Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” What Jesus was telling Pilot is that God’s kingdom does not share the violence and greed and lust for power and control that characterizes earthly kingdoms. And that’s as true of our democracy as any autocracy. Fortunately our democracy has safeguards against violence, but it’s still all about control. Look at how our Congress currently operates. It’s all about winning and control and very few of them seem to care about the common good, and all of us suffer the consequences from that and many of us get caught up in it. Such are the kingdoms of this world. Nevertheless, we have to work within the kingdoms of this world, within the unjust worldly systems to help to bring about God’s will on earth. God’s kingdom has to work with and through earthly kingdoms as corrupt as they may be, but God’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and greed and love of power that characterizes the world’s kingdoms.

Now, I want to close by talking about this teaching where Jesus is purported as saying that he has come to divide the family such as setting son against father and daughter against mother and making enemies of one’s own family. Again, Jesus is using hyperbole as he often does, but he is talking about how loyalty to the kingdom of God divides. But let me address first those who use loyalty to Jesus language to preach exclusivity and condemn people of other religious faiths. Unfortunately, this is how some Christians use a passage like this.

It’s important to keep in mind that we do not have the actual words of Jesus; we have the Christian interpretation and version of Jesus’ words. Jesus was a Galilean Jew with Galilean Jewish parents which makes it highly unlikely that he knew a lot of Greek. But even if he did know some Greek, in teaching his fellow Palestinian Jews Jesus would have taught in their common language, which was, of course, Aramaic. Also, the sayings of Jesus were not written down when he first said them. They were later remembered and passed down orally – passed on by word of mouth – most likely years before they were ever written down. All Jesus scholars point out that what Jesus actually talked about would have been loyalty to God or the kingdom of God not loyalty to himself. (Unfortunately, even someone as astute as C.S. Lewis missed . . . ) But as Christians passed on this teaching it’s easy to see how loyalty to Jesus makes its way into the saying. We Christians believe Jesus is the definitive revelation of the character of God and the values of God’s kingdom. So, in the course of transmission, loyalty to Jesus takes the place of loyalty to the kingdom, because we are talking about the same thing. People of other religious faiths do not believe what we believe about Jesus, but they may indeed embrace the values that Jesus lived and modeled. So, no Christian should use a saying like this as proof that people of other religious traditions who believe something different about Jesus cannot know God. They can know God and serve God by modeling the values of the kingdom of God that Jesus taught his followers to embrace and do.

So, that brings me to the second point and this is really important. Being loyal to Jesus then is not loyalty to some version of Christian doctrine about Jesus or anything else like that. It’s about loyalty to the values – the attitudes and actions, words and deeds – that Jesus embodied and called his followers to live. So, loyalty to Jesus is about loyalty and commitment to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It’s about commitment to care and uplift and liberate “the little ones,” those most vulnerable and disadvantaged, the ones Jesus invested so much time with and cared so much about. It’s about doing acts of mercy and working to create a just system for the common good. That’s what loyalty to Jesus is. By the way, that’s why church is important or should be important. Church should be about forming worshiping, serving communities that can inspire and empower its members to love the way Jesus loved and be committed to the work of healing and liberation the way Jesus was.  

What Jesus is saying is that our commitment and loyalty to the values of the kingdom of God (which means being loyal to Jesus and to God) – our loyalty and commitment to works of mercy and justice, to taking care of the little ones, to peacemaking and forgiveness, to healing and liberation – our loyalty to these values of God’s kingdom and the way of Jesus must take priority over everything else, even our basic family relationships. That’s what this teaching is about. This is what is so hard for us, namely, commitment to God’s kingdom always involves expanding and enlarging our little world and vision. That’s why a person committed to Christ will give of themselves to help others and speak out against injustice even though it may upset members of their own family. Because their first priority is God’s kingdom.

Now, that’s tough. There is no sugar coating this. This is a hard teaching. I sometimes wonder how many Christians in churches across our country and our world, and I include myself, because I question myself too, I question my own loyalty too – how many of us are really that loyal to the kingdom of God? I wonder this about myself. Am I really that loyal? Maybe we should all give that some thought.

Our good God, I am so thankful that you are a God who takes notice of falling sparrows, because you surly notice and care for us when are falling too. I thank you that Jesus revealed to us that you are a God we do not need to be afraid of. A God that we can deeply love – because you deeply love us. We have to confess that in so many ways we fail to model your love – I know I do. And we struggle with the loyalty you ask of us and want us to be committed to. And the only reason you ask such loyalty is because you want us to love others with the same kind of love you have for each of us. Help us to know, O God, just as we used to sing when we were kids, how “deep and wide” is your love for each of us and the whole wide world, and not only know, but love that way too.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Love, Laugh, Live (Gen. 18:1-15; 21:1-7)

The story begins with the phrase: “The Lord appeared to Abraham.” But what is not clear is how the Lord appeared. The text says that Abraham saw three men standing near him. Three strangers wandering over to his tent in the heat of the day. Three travelers. But then when Abraham speaks the text says “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” Then he proceeds to offer the strangers rest and refreshment. He welcomes them and extends hospitality urging them to stay for a while and be refreshed, which hospitality they accepted.

There is a lot of ambiguity here. Three men show up in front of his tent and in this encounter Abraham experiences God. Maybe so much is left out because when any of us experience God it is always a matter of faith. Such encounters are always ambiguous. Such encounters only make sense to the one who has the experience and can always be interpreted in other ways. Stories like this prepare us for the Christian teaching of incarnation where we meet God in flesh and blood, in human lives and experiences, just as Abraham meets God in the lives of these three men.

Thomas Merton had an experience that changed the way he looked at others. It was 1958 (the year of my birth). He had been in Louisville meeting with a publisher. Afterward, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, as he walked through the shipping district of the city, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that he loved everyone around him. In his words, he came to the realization “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He said that he saw the “secret beauty of their heart.” He wrote, “It was if they were all walking around shining like the sun.” That was his experience, and it had a profound transforming influence in his life.

The writer of the Gospel of John in his prologue says that the true light which shone so brightly in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is present in all of us. The Gospel writer says the true light is the light of all people and enlightens everyone. There was a window in time when the veil was lifted for Merton and he could see the light of God radiating from each person. Merton wrote, “If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty no more greed . . .  I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

That last line of Merton’s is intriguing. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. In John 10 there is a passage that Richard Rohr suggests may be the most highly enlightened text in all the Bible. Jesus is being accused of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders because he claimed to speak and act on behalf of God and thus in their minds was making himself equal with God. In rebuttal Jesus quoted the Psalmist in Psalm 82. In that Psalm the Psalmist hears God say to God’s people: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan (notice – not just show them mercy, rather, give them justice. Fix the system) maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” But someone might say, “By what authority do we do these acts of justice?” The Psalmist writes “I say, ‘You are gods.’” Who are gods? The Psalmist says, “You children of the Most High, all of you.” The Psalmist then clarifies: Even though you will die like mortals, you are nevertheless gods. We have the authority to represent God in doing mercy and contending for justice.

Lest we think the Psalmist has lost his marbles Jesus quotes this very Psalm in John 10. To the Jews who were accusing him of blasphemy because he claimed to speak and act for God Jesus says, “Your own scripture says that all children of God are gods. So how is it that you accuse me of blasphemy simply because I claim to speak and act on behalf of God as God’s Son?” Let that sink in for a minute. Yes, we are mortal, but we bear the image of God. The light of God dwells in us. So yes indeed, we can speak and act on behalf of God who seeks justice for all people and calls us to be his representatives and agents to enact justice and do mercy.

Abraham seems to be aware of the Light, the Divine Presence in the three strangers. It’s quite fascinating how the storywriter describes the actions of Abraham. Abraham “hastened” into the tent. He told Sarah to prepare some bread cakes “quickly.” He then “ran,” not walked, but ran to the herd to find a calf, not just any calf but one “tender and good.” (Reminds me of the father in Luke 15.) He took the calf to his servant who “hastened” to prepare it. This is the language of urgency. It’s as if Abraham knows instinctively or intuitively the sacredness and fullness and momentousness of this experience. So everything is done with haste, with a sense of urgency, as if he knows this is a window of time for a revelatory encounter with God.

When was the last time you felt such an urgency of the moment as if a window in space and time had opened up for you to experience some new revelation from God? Or maybe you have never had such an experience. Abraham was awake to the moment. He was not going to allow this moment, this experience to pass by. That’s the expression he uses in the text: “My lord, if I have found favor with you (if I have truly met a God of grace), do not pass by your servant.” He seized the moment. He redeemed the time. He laid hold of what was before him. This was a time to act, and he sensed that it would be through an act of hospitality and welcome that he would encounter God. (And that is a theme that runs through scripture. We especially see it in the life of Jesus.)

Are we open and awake to such experiences? Do we live with any sort of expectation that we might have a life transforming encounter with God today? And I wonder how many windows have opened in time that we have failed to even notice? I wonder how many burning bushes we have never turned aside to see? Many of us tend to spiritually sleep our way through life. No wonder the biblical writers tell us to “Wake up” and pay attention. Paul or whoever wrote Ephesians said, “Sleeper, awake. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I wonder how many possible resurrections in our lives we’ve missed because we were asleep?

I love to tell the story of the monk who was away from the monastery on a pilgrimage. He was making his way through some wilderness and could see in the distance a huge, mammoth tiger. He could tell the tiger had his eyes on him as prey. So he picked up his pace and went he did the tiger made its move. A little ways in front of him was a steep cliff. He ran to the cliff, pulled out his rope and tied one end to a stump close to the cliff, and then managed to leap over the side just as one of the vicious paws of the tiger swept pat his face. His rope was not very long, so he found himself dangling about one third of the way down. At the basin of the cliff were large boulders and jagged rocks. As he hung there he managed to get his feet lodged into the side while he tied the rope around him. Then immediately in front of him he noticed growing out of a little dirt patch on the side of the cliff the largest most luscious strawberry he had ever seen. He reached out and touched it. He then plucked it from the vine. He turned it around in his hands. He brought it up to his nose. He took in the sweet aroma. And then he bit into it savoring the bite. He then said to himself, “Without question this is the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever tasted.”

Now, how many of us would have missed that moment. We allow our fears and worries and insecurities to so get to us that we tend to miss these revelatory moments in our lives that might just make all the difference in the world.

Maybe Abraham’s actions hold the key to opening our hearts to receive God’s word to us. Abraham acts in love. He bestows welcome and hospitality. He gives them rest and nourishment and refreshment. He cares for them. He acts in mercy and grace. If we will be quick to respond in mercy and grace to those who need our hospitality and welcome perhaps then we will be ready to receive a word from God. Then, we too, like Merton, might see the light within every child of God. We might know that we all belong. We might just see how great and inclusive God’s love really is.

Love is at the heart of who God is and what God is about. For us Christians Jesus’ death has redemptive power in our lives. The reason it has redemptive power in our lives is because we see Jesus’ death as Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as a revelation of God’s love for all of us. This is not love we have earned, but love we are freely given simply because God loves us. Because Christ was committed to God’s cause and lived for God’s kingdom on earth, because he acted on behalf of the needy and powerless, because he did works of mercy and justice, because he broke down boundaries and crossed lines of separation, the wrath and violence of the powers that be was poured out on him. Nevertheless, he bore their wrath without returning it and thus revealed to all who have eyes to see the all-inclusive, all-embracing, magnanimous love of God.

If we will walk in love as Christ has loved us, if we will engage in acts of mercy and justice, if we will welcome and show hospitality to the stranger, then our hearts will be open to receive God’s word, to see God’s light, and to hear God’s voice. By the way, we can’t just show hospitality to the neighbor down the street and then support policies that turn away helpless refugees who need hospitality and welcome from our country. I can’t imagine how God would approve of that can you?

It is Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and welcome that paves the way for the revelatory word that catches them both by surprise. One of the guests says to Abraham, “Your wife is going to have a son.” Sarah was listening at the tent entrance and found this quite amusing. Sarah and Abraham are really old folks and Sarah says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” She is saying, “We have no potency and no competency in what it takes to make a baby. Look at us for heaven’s sake.”

The Lord asks Abraham why Sarah laughs. (We assume that God is speaking through these three strangers.) I don’t read this as a rebuke. I read this interchange in a playful kind of way. This is holy laughter and sacred surprise. In chapter 21 when their son is born Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” I think God loves our laughter. Especially when we can laugh at our humanity. I have a saying on my desk, “Laugh often and much.” Then this wonderful question is posed, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord.”

When was the last time God surprised you? If you say you can’t remember, then I would ask, “Why not?” Maybe we have forgotten how precious life is. Brother David Steindl-Rast tells about visiting in Africa a place that had been through the horrors of war. In his visit he came across groups of children gathering on busy street corners after dark, setting up small alters to pray. The children were completely undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of adults all around them. Steindl-Rast was told that children started this custom during the bloodiest weeks of the war. One generation of children had handed it on to the next generation for more than a decade. He says it dawned on him that “only a heart familiar with death will appreciate the gift of life with so deep a feeling of joy.” We should do whatever it takes to nurture in our minds and hearts an awareness of just how precious life is.

Mary Oliver is an award winning poet. She offers I think a beautiful formula for living with surprise, laughter, and gratitude. She says: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Can you love what is mortal? Can you see the light of God within what is mortal? Can you see the stranger as your brother, as your sister? Can you welcome them and make them feel at home? Can you offer them hospitality and refreshment? Can you accept them as your own? We all belong. We are all one. If we could just see the light in the stranger.

Can you hold on to them with the love of Christ? Can you hold on to the hope of God’s kingdom? Of a world of mutuality and equality, of mercy and justice. This is a real challenge today isn’t it? When we see people in power abuse it over and over. Can we hold on to God’s dream of a world where everyone has enough to thrive, not just survive, when we see how the system is rigged so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Can you hold on to love, to peace, to faith and hope?

And when the time comes to let go, can you let go?

Our good and gracious God, let us wake up to the light in all of us, and wake up to the grace and goodness all around us. Let us wake up to your love so that we might be channels through which your love can flow to others. Let us not give up on doing good, doing acts of mercy and justice. Let us forgive and seek forgiveness for wrongs done. So that we might live fully, so that we might know laughter and surprise, and be filled with gratitude for all the wonders of this life.